Don’t Stay At Home, Mom

Oh, you’re so brave! I could never do that. My child screams in the car on the way to the grocery store/husband cannot wash his own socks and would never let me leave for that long/What if we got lost? I have no sense of direction/weren’t you afraid?

Several people have asked me how and why I decided to take an extended road trip with a highly active three year-old and my sixty year-old mother. Most assume that my son is an easy child,that my mother and I never get on each other’s nerves, and that I have endless reserves of patience and courage. They are wrong on all counts, especially the last two.

So before all of the details of the trip fade and are forgotten, I am going to explain exactly how I was able to pull this month long road trip off.

The first thing you need is inspiration. I have always loved to travel, yet something about my transition to motherhood dimmed that desire. Fear loomed large in everyday life– Was my child eating enough? What about his poop? Is he so cute that some sicko might kill me and steal him right out of the grocery cart in the middle of Trader Joes and no one would even notice? What if he somehow finds his way to our roof and falls off? And Dr. Meyer, have you ever noticed that his pupils are different sizes. I believe his has congenital anisocoria (And he does) but want to make sure he is not dying from some rare form of fatal cancer of the eyeball. To say I check all of the doors and windows and stoves and lights and the knives to make sure they are pointed sharp side down before I go to bed each night is an understatement.

Quite simply, I am not that brave.(And I sure as hell am not patient!) But the side of me that aches for adventure was clamoring too loudly to be silenced by the neurotic part of my personality that likes to imagine the worst possible scenario and plan accordingly. So, I turned to search engines to help me find examples of women who travel alone with their children. While I did find a few intrepid mamas, most people traveling with very small children–at least those who write about it–are couples.

Since my husband works full-time, and was also planning to open a comic book store during my proposed period of travel, I decided to invite my mom, who was between jobs and in the midst of a nasty divorce. Having driven cross country once before–with James when Max was an infant–there were so many things that I wanted my mother to see and experience.

My mother and I have always had a complicated relationship. She sometimes put relationships with men before her children and made a lot of other painful choices that quite frankly, I resented her for making. When I first lived in Boston in the early 1990s, we did not see one another for almost two years, even though we lived within driving distance of one another. Our personalities can clash violently. In short, I am a typical, brash Aries and my mom a stubborn, quiet Taurus who sometimes has to be prodded to reveal what she *really* wants, needs or would like.

This made for some interesting arguments along the way.

But back to traveling with a small child, since I suspect most of you reading are more curious about how to pull that off.

The answer is relatively simple: you do it at home, everyday. If you are a stay at home mother or if you work any number of hours outside your home, you have to deal with the little people’s shit anyway, right? Changing the scenery does not change that fact, although the lack of housework and/or office politics might just tip you in favor of taking a trip. You do not have to head out for a month or more, if that seems overwhelming or you simply cannot find the time or the money. Although on the last account, you need much less money than you think to have a good time traveling with your children.

One of the best ways to save time and sanity is to do a little advance planning. No, I am not suggesting you draft detailed itineraries, jam-packed with twelve hours worth of non-stop fun, fun, fun–because let’s face it, if that is how you roll, you will not enjoy packing up the little ones and heading off into the sunset. What I am suggesting is that you spend some time looking for state parks or playgrounds in the areas you will be visiting. Kaboom, a clearinghouse of places to play around the country, was one website I visited nightly. Also keep in mind that most elementary schools have playgrounds, and if you stop after school has let out or on a weekend, the chances of anyone busting your ass for playing are slim to none. State park signs in many parts of the country feature a helpful playground logo, so keep an eye out for these as you’re barreling down a four lane highway listening to I’ve Been Working On The Railroad for the 17th time, while your small child yells Stop the cah! Get me outta heah!Now!

Just keep in mind that some states are so proud of our national treasures that they will post a sign 300 miles away from the actual park.

The next step in remaining relatively sane on a road trip with the under 5 set is to limit the number of consecutive hours spent strapped into the car to 2 or 3 at a time. Remember that trip you took with your best friend years ago, where you both took turns driving, driving, and driving stopping only for more gas and a pack of Twizzlers to share? Now, forget about it if that is what you think of when someone says Road trip!

I found that for us getting a very early start worked best. Max tends to be an early riser and this proved no exception on our trip. If you are staying in a hotel, being awake early will also make your time at the breakfast buffet a bit more bearable, since the likelihood is high that none of the other guests will be awake to hear your child loudly insist that a chocolate frosted, sprinkle coated transfatty donut is an appropriate breakfast. And, guess what? Sometimes such a donut is a fabulous breakfast for a cranky preschooler. Even if you lean towards food snobbery and obsessive label reading at home. (As I do.) While we are on the subject of food, every morning when you get into your car, do not drive away unless you have a couple of snacks and small toys located in the front where you can quickly pass them back to your child. It is a rule of the road that even a child who ate a full breakfast just 15 minutes earlier will decide to have a growth spurt and beg for food in a voice and tone straight out of the most pathetic Dicken’s novel as soon as you try to merge into oncoming traffic. Be prepared.

Another advantage to rolling out of your hotel as early as possible, is that you will probably avoid the stress of navigating the morning commute in an unfamiliar city or town. When we stayed in hotels, I tried to find those a bit outside of major urban areas–both to save money, and if timed appropriately, to limit the likelihood of getting stuck in a traffic jam. Google maps was very useful for locating slightly smaller towns outside of major cities, and for figuring out where we could plan to break for a playground stop or local attraction.

I was just interrupted by both boys in my life, so forgive me, as my train of thought is now completely shot. Two more quick, unrelated practical bits of advice.

Number one: while most hotels have on site laundry for guests to use, they usually only have one washer and one dryer. If you have accumulated more than one load you will most likely be better off finding a local laundromat and washing all of your clothes at once. (The good news is that you will probably only generate a load or two of laundry each week.) At a Best Western in Galveston, Texas I nonchalantly threw in a load of laundry one morning before breakfast, switched it into the dryer and started another load only to come back down later to find that not only had workers decided to cordon off the laundry room and paint everything associated with it, but the dryer was a total pussy, and I was left standing there watching over my sopping laundry for the next hour and a half while trading angry stares with some dudes who wanted to paint the floor.

Number two: There will be many, many things that you would have otherwise loved to do, see or experience that will need to be saved for another trip. Example: I love to snorkel. Max can barely hold his breath under water and is given to grabbing my bathing suit in a panic and shouting Boobies!. Guess who was not able to explore the reefs at
John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park.

There is always next time!

ETA: If you have any questions, fire away and I’ll answer in the comments. I know this was a bit disorganized, but there are several living things clamoring for my attention at the moment.


6 responses to “Don’t Stay At Home, Mom

  1. You need to take this and turn it into a book.


    Have I happened to mention you’re a rock star?

  2. Last summer we took a short road trip with the girls to Parrsboro (if you come out this way, you MUST go that way-the Minas Basin is incredibly lovely, as is most of that past of Nova Scotia.

    While my anxiety has been lessened somewhat by my drugs, I still always had the “what if” syndrome in my head-what if they whine, what if they cry, what if we get stuck, etc, etc, etc.

    They were great. But you advice about the 2-3 hours is right on the money, as is the playgrounds…they need to run off steam, even if it’s just a day trip. being stuck in a car SUCKS when you’re a kid and can’t see out the window that well. 🙂

  3. I applied to do a ‘teacher’ naturalis position at the John Pennekamp park 4 summers ago. I was ‘waitlisted’ and at the last minute they sent me an email saying there was a spot but I had already started teaching summer school. I was so disappointed. Was it really a cool place? What did you think of the campground (did you look at it at all? Mostly I wonder about shade with the baby. I would like to camp there in the summer and do some scuba diving maybe even this summer….

  4. When we told people that we were spending a month in Mexico last summer, pretty much everyone’s first question was: with your kids (in a voice that was part shock, part awe)?

    Half the battle is just deciding to do it, and then figuring out how to suck it up when things go wrong, which they inevitably do, just like at home. Now my girls have the bug: they want to go back to Mexico, to Paris, to London, to all the interesting places they can find on the map. They learned that they are strong enough to handle the adversity, too, and that part of it has been really good for them.

    (I laughed when you described the kind of Taurus your mom is, but it was one of those uncomfortable, that sounds too much like me kind of laughs.)

  5. Living where we do – the closest real city to us is Monterrey, Mexico, and we’re not brave enough to drive into Mexico yet – we have to do lots of road trips, short or long. You’ve hit the nail on the head in all your advice. We’re pretty health and nutrition conscious here at home, but when we pack up the van to go, most of our rules go out the window. (Still no soda – for the kids – or beef for anyone, but hotel breakfasts are fair game.)

    And once you do it a time or two, the kids start to love it. At least ours do. Guthrie knows “road trip” means his own bag of Cheetos and a blue Gatorade, maybe even hotel pools and floaties, so he practically begs for road trips. I’ve learned to nurse, while wearing my seat belt, in a moving vehicle, I make sandwiches while we drive, and created iPod playlists that are kid-friendly but won’t drive the adults crazy. (Glenn Miller is a huge hit – who would have thought?)

    It’s great that Max is getting all this, and at such a young age. He’s a lucky boy.

  6. well, gosh -that sounds almost as much fun as, say, driving up to the Northern Kingdom during a phenomenal meteor shower with a 10 yr old and a 2 yr old singing Barry Manilow….

    I have been looking for you forever.

    love to my long lost little sister/best girlfriend

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